To conduct the study, Saygin and psychology graduate students Jin Li and Heather Hansen and psychology assistant professor David Osher examined MRI scans of the brains of 40 newborns. All babies were under a week old and part of the Developing Human Connectome Project, the goal of which is to build “a dynamic map of human brain connectivity from 20 to 44 weeks post-conceptional age.” The map is meant to tie clinical, behavioral, imaging and genetic data.
The scans from the Developing Human Connectome Project were compared to similar ones of 40 adults who participated in the separate Human Connectome Project. That effort aims to provide a unique collection of neural data, a method to see the data with images and “the opportunity to achieve never before realized conclusions about the living human brain.”
Researchers discovered that even in infants, the VWFA differed from the part of the visual cortex that identifies faces. This is primarily because it has a functional connection to the part of the brain responsible for language processing.
“It’s interesting to think about how and why our brains develop functional modules that are sensitive to specific things like faces, objects, and words,” said Li, also a lead author of the study. “Our study really emphasized the role of already having brain connections at birth to help develop functional specialization, even for an experience-dependent category like reading.”
Presently, researchers in Saygin’s lab are scanning the brains of 3- and 4-year-olds. The effort is meant to discover information about how the VWFA behaves before children learn to read and the visual properties the region is responsive to.
Saygin said the aim is to learn how the brain becomes a reading brain. Researchers may be able to understand differences in reading behavior by learning more about individual variability, which could be valuable when studying developmental disorders, including dyslexia.